Does It Matter Whether The Community Would Miss Your Church?

closed-churchIf your church closed it’s doors, would the community around you miss it?

This question, and the many variations of it, is exceptionally popular in the ministry world. It’s been rumored to have originated with one of several famous pastors – I’m not sure who was first to use it in public. It’s prevalent in the world of church planting: “You want to plant the kind of church that five years in the community would miss if you weren’t there anymore.” It’s used in church revitalization circles, often to attempt to move a dying congregation into action in their community: “Right now, if we were to close the doors of this church, the community wouldn’t even miss us. Let’s work together to change that!” It makes for an excellent rallying cry and a very useful tool for inspiration and motivation.

But I don’t believe it’s a biblical question to ask. Or to put it another way, I think the way this question is commonly used tends to put the church onto a trajectory that is not mandated or modeled in the Scriptures.

I could be wrong, but I can’t find an example of this being a goal of any New Testament church. I’ve read Acts over and over, but I can’t find it. The closest I can come up with is the fact that Acts 8:8 says there was much joy in Samaria because of Phillip’s ministry of exorcism and healing. But the ministry of Phillip does not equal the ministry of a local church. In addition, when this question is asked today I have not heard anyone use it to spur a church on towards engaging the community with miraculous healings and casting out of demons. I’ve read the epistles over and over, and I can’t find one instance of an apostle telling elders in a city to make this their goal. I can’t find one call to a local body of believers to make their congregations so appealing and winsome to the unbelieving city around them that the city would miss them if they were gone.

Instead, we see examples of unbelieving cities hating the proclamation of the gospel. Believers are persecuted and scattered. As people come to faith in Christ, the economic systems of cities are challenged as idolatry is no longer a lucrative market. As the gospel goes out idolatry is challenged and hour long riots break out. None of this seems to match the description of “the community would miss the church.” As a general rule, unbelievers are quite happy to have the proclamation of Law and Gospel be dispensed with as soon as possible. They’re not asking for it or missing it when it’s no longer there.

My fear is that this question puts an unnecessary burden on pastors that has no root in Scripture. Rather than stay focused on the ministry of the Word, they believe that in order to have a fruitful ministry in a community they must make the church something that the community loves. They give their time to hosting block parties, producing top-of-the-line drama presentations, organizing huge Easter egg hunts, and putting on Fall Festivals. Often these community events have little-to-no gospel focus, and are seen as simply ways to bring the church into the goodwill of the community, and perhaps build relationships that may one day lead to the gospel being presented. Maybe.

Other times, pastors trying to earn the affection of the community by rallying a small army for community service projects. One church growth expert said in a recent book, “Plan weekly practical deeds out in the community. It doesn’t really matter what these events are as long as they: bless the people you’re helping, bless the city, and provide visibility for your church. Notice that the church must get credit for being a blessing; do not do anything anonymously.Doesn’t sound quite like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, does it?

The truth is, a church may be completely faithful. They may be boldly proclaiming the gospel during Sunday worship, to hundreds throughout the city on street corners and one-on-one over cups of coffee in a local Starbucks. They may be loving one another, meeting each other’s needs in practical ways, demonstrating the character and love of Christ in their day-in, day-out interactions with one another. They may be faithfully administering the sacraments and prayerfully exercising church discipline. They may be making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded… and the community may not even know they exist. Or they could be completely apathetic to the church’s existence. Or further still, the community may hate them and wish they weren’t there. It really doesn’t matter – Jesus loves this church, and is well-pleased with their faithful service to Him.

What do you think? Am I missing something? Am I off the mark? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

 

Comments

  1. Jimmy says

    I would read Acts 6 as a clear example of the church serving those outside their own walls because there was a need.

    • says

      Jimmy, I’ve honestly never heard anyone contend that the widows being fed in Acts 6 were unbelieving widows outside the church. Not saying I necessarily think that couldn’t have been the case – just haven’t ever heard anyone say that before. I’m fascinated by the idea though – do you have any commentaries you could recommend that advocate for that position?

      (And because the internet is horrible about this, let me just say explicitly – please don’t hear any snark in what I just wrote. I honestly am curious and would love to read more.)

      • Jimmy says

        I haven’t read any commentaries on the matter. But I would say that there is no need to bifurcate Christian service in this way. That is to love your neighbor is to love your neighbor. It doesn’t matter if that person is a believer or not. I don’t read anywhere in the NT a service that is meant for those outside the church and another for those inside.

        I read all the commands in 1 John (1 John 3:16) for example as a contextualization of Jesus commands in the Sermon on the Mount (love your neighbor). When we love those in our local community or visiting brothers and sisters we are doing as the Lord commanded. When we love a homeless woman who has never heard the gospel we are doing the same thing. In both cases the Kingdom of God is being lived out on earth as it is in Heaven.

        But as you responded to Jessica I know you don’t read the gospels that way, or at least not Matthew 25.

      • says

        But there are certain responsibilities that scripture outlines that we have to those within the church that we don’t have (at least not in the same way) to those who are outside the church. Using the feeding of widows for example, 1 Timothy 5 gives detailed instruction about how the care for widows should be organized *within the church.* (In fact, it even says that only a certain kind of widow within the church should receive this kind of support from the church). I think we make a mistake when we use passages that deal with instruction about a specific situation and then widen it to include anyone and everyone.

        I’d argue the same thing about your example from 1 John 3:16. While it is true that we are called to “love our neighbor” as a whole, John is addressing something unique – love for our Christian brothers and sisters. There is a unique love for those in the family of God that John is discussing, and we lose the distinctness of those exhortations when we apply it broadly to everyone (“love your neighbor”). “Brother” is used in a specific way to talk about a particular kind of person with whom we are in covenant relationship. If we’re going to gloss that with “love your neighbor” than can we do the same thing with Paul’s call for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church? While that surely fits in the category of loving our neighbor, there is a unique, specific love that is called for that is not given to anyone and everyone.

        Why would we read specific instructions with a wider application than they are written in? Again, I appreciate the conversation – it helps sharpen my thinking and refine my understanding.

  2. says

    For the church to be faithful to the call of Christ (Matt 25) I think the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, the trafficked, the imprisoned, and so on — all a part of a community — should miss the church when it’s gone. If not, we’re doing something wrong… this obviously doesn’t mean the church is loved by everyone. The church will be hated by those who are opposed to the light, opposed to justice and to the reign of God (the kingdom of heaven!). But that doesn’t mean the community as a whole will reject the church or despise her.

    Also, if God’s people are meant to be a light pointing back to the Creator (Isaiah 42:6; Matt 5:14-16)… isn’t it a problem if the world doesn’t know we exist?

    Looking at the larger narrative of Scripture, I think the goal of being a blessing to the community you are in is in fact a biblical one.

    Now, I hear you on the easter egg hunts and the dramas and festivals and what not (though I think community outreach is a valid ministry of the church). BUT the church should be out in the trenches, pushing back the darkness — such as fighting human trafficking through interventions, rescuing girls and women from pimps and brothels — and it seems like a good thing if the community knows and sees the church as the first to initiate and fight against this and other forms of oppression… the Gospel in action… God making all things right.

    That’s my initial response to the question.

    • says

      Two quick thoughts in response:

      1. I think we probably interpret Matthew 25 differently. I don’t think Matthew 25 is a call to serve hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, and prisoners in general. Rather, it’s a call to do so for those within the family of God, as Jesus refers to them not just as “the least of these” but “the least of these my brothers” (v.40). Jesus never refers to those outside the church as his brothers. (That being said, the overall call for Christians to serve the poor, oppressed, suffering, etc. is clear from the whole testimony of Scripture – I just won’t use Matthew 25 as an appeal for it.

      2. I think we’re likely using “the church” in different ways as well. I would agree 100% that the things mentioned are the call of every Christian, and therefore “the church” – as in “the people of God.” But I’m not certain they are all the responsibility of each “local church” – or the church as a localized organization.

      Or, to try to be more clear – I think Christians should be great neighbors. We should be loving, praying for, serving, meeting needs, evangelizing, etc the people that are in our contexts. But that is not contingent on a particular local church being in existence. So, let’s say you and Jimmy have been a huge blessing to your community – you have hosted block parties, facilitated relational connection between neighbors, organized meals and relational support for a neighbor who lost their spouse recently… If you were to vanish from the neighborhood suddenly, the neighborhood would definitely miss you. But if your church were to close and you started attending another local body, your neighbors would likely not even know – because you would continue to do the same things you’ve always done.

      I’m not necessarily against community outreach and I’m certainly not against serving those who have need. But my fear is that the thinking I’ve seen behind the question (particularly in church planting and revitalization contexts that are being fueled by a typical, evangelical church-growth mindset) is that A) the verbal proclamation of the gospel is minimized and B) the events are not done in actual love, but as giant PR pushes for the church to gain brand exposure.

      Thanks for the helpful pushback on this – I’m thinking out loud here, and the perspective you’ve offered is really helpful.

  3. says

    In general I agree with you, especially the way you pointed out the way this question can put an unbiblical burden on churches and pastors. But I’m hesitant to throw out the question completely because I think it does get at one of the fruits of faithful discipleship. If a church is full of people who are faithfully loving their neighbors in a Christlike way, I think you are likely to see some improvement in the reputation of that church in the community.

    Another way to put what I’m saying is that it is biblical for a church to attend to its reputation in the world (I’m thinking of Matthew 5:16 and 1 Timothy 3:7). This is one reason why churches should be committed to practice meaningful membership and church discipline. It would certainly reflect badly on the name of Christ if a church was known to be full of active thieves and adulterers. But as you observed, because we should expect the world to hate the gospel and persecute Christians, we can’t make our regard for our reputation in the community ultimate or the decisive factor. Perhaps that is what you are reacting against in questioning this question – when it is asked in a way that seems to make a local church’s reputation the ultimate consideration.

    • says

      Kyle, good thoughts. I said this a bit in a comment above, but I think you’re absolutely right that maturing Christians should be loving their neighbors in a Christlike way. They should be serving, loving, blessing, praying for, meeting practical needs, evangelizing, etc. But if the local church plant they belong to were to flop and close it’s doors, does that really have a ton of impact on those same neighbors that were being served? It shouldn’t – the Christians should continue to live in the same way and be a blessing to their community.

      I guess I tend to distinguish between the role of individual Christian families and the responsibilities of the local church corporately. Does that make sense?

      • says

        I think the distinction between the role of individual Christian families and the responsibilities of the local church corporately is the right distinction to make. We praise God for those in the church with a heart to reach the poor, stand up for the unborn, fight human trafficking, etc. We praise God that he’s given individuals hearts to serve God in that way, but it’s not the call of the corporate church body. The Biblical call is that we make disciples through the power of the Gospel. We are to be Gospel-centered. We are to be focused on pointing others and ourselves to Jesus – who gives life, who is the living water, who is the bread of life.

        I have seen, firsthand, how churches easily turn into soup kitchens, social clubs, and lose the Gospel. I have seen how “ministries” fail to effectively make disciples of Christ by transforming into activity-oriented “ministries.” I am convinced that this only feeds into the scary mindset that says, “Lord, Lord, we did all these things in your name” (Matt 7:21-23).

        I agree with your take on Matthew 25 that “my brothers” is an apposition of “the least of these” – referring to a unique love and care for those within the church. There is a call in scripture to care for those in the body of Christ in a special way – we’re family. Community outreach is relational and to be with those we come into contact with every day – co-workers, classmates, bank teller, etc.